APRIL 21, 2015
THERE’S SOMETHING POTENT about murder and mayhem in a cold climate. We might take our reading to the beaches and pool sides of sunnier places, but, if sales of Scandinavian mystery novels are anything to go by, we enjoy our crime fiction set in snowstorms, vast landscapes, and the frozen cities of the far north.
As a judge for the Petrona Award, a prize for the best translated Scandinavian crime novel, I’ve heard many writers from the region speak about their books. Inevitably, they’re asked to give an explanation as to why the genre is so popular internationally. I’ve yet to hear a convincing answer. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be argued to have propelled Swedish thrillers into the public consciousness, but even Larsson was drawing on a tradition of crime writing that included Henning Mankell and, before him, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
The problem with providing a comprehensive explanation for the proliferation of Scandinavian mysteries, I suspect, is that the region portrayed within them is politically, culturally, and geographically diverse. Trying to compare the isolated fishing communities of northern Iceland in the soon-to-be-translated novels of Ragnar Jónasson with the Gotham-influenced Oslo of Jo Nesbø’s books is an impossible task. The genre also hasn’t been helped by the use of that catch-all phrase “Nordic noir”; while Mankell and Nesbø’s bloody narratives have the dark ambience of American noir, the domestic novels of Sweden’s Camilla Läckberg would sit happily in the cozy section of a bookstore.
Arnaldur Indridason is the most prolific crime novelist to emerge from Iceland. While the country has a rich literary heritage, crime fiction wasn’t, until recently, considered a commercial prospect. Indridason has spoken of his struggle getting a publisher to agree to a Reykjavík-based crime series. But, of course, as Scottish crime author Ian Rankin frequently asserts, good writing transcends any genre classification — and for Indridason, the same applies to setting. He gained a loyal Icelandic following and secured an English translation, in 2004, for his third book, Jar City. The novel became popular among Scandinavian mystery readers desperate for newly translated authors.
One problem with setting a thriller in Iceland is the country’s low crime rate. Murder is rare and gun crimes low. In 2013, the country saw its first killing of a gunman in an armed police operation. However, Iceland is part of modern Europe and is no longer insulated from the rest of the world’s increased social unrest. Indridason mines these tensions to include in his books housing projects (Silence of the Grave), racism (Arctic Chill), and corporate greed (Black Skies). He has a brutal eye and can be unflinching in his narratives. This is no exaggeration: Silence of the Grave opens with a young child gnawing on a toy which, on closer inspection, is revealed to be a piece of human rib.
Settings aren’t limited to urban Reykjavík, however. The threat of Iceland’s natural landscape acts as an invisible antagonist in Indridason’s novels. It’s a stark and unforgiving climate, and his detective, Erlendur Sveinsson, is scarred as a result of a childhood trauma in the elements. Lost with his brother Beggi in a snowstorm, Erlendur is found — but his sibling remains forever eight years old. This tragedy has repercussions far beyond the loss of a brother. The family uproots itself from the isolated farm, now forever associated with the absent child, and moves to Reykjavík. And all Erlendur’s investigations are conducted with a sense of rootlessness and unresolved loss.
Unlike in many crime series, Nordic or otherwise, Indridason’s detective isn’t central to every book. While Erlendur Sveinsson goes on annual pilgrimages to the scene of his childhood tragedy, Indridason brings to the fore other team members familiar to readers of the series. In Outrage, Erlendur’s colleague Elínborg leads the investigation. Her off-duty focus on compiling a cookbook contrasts with Erlendur’s ready-meal attitude toward cuisine. In Black Skies, it’s the less personable Sigurdur Óli’s turn to take charge. It’s a clever approach by Indridason; not only do the non-Erlendur books stand up on their own merits, but he follows in the tradition of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, allowing the collective talents of the team and solid investigative processes — not the heroism of one troubled detective — to ultimately conclude the cases.
After 11 books and 13 years, the series comes to an end in Strange Shores. There’s a personal resolution, of sorts, for Erlendur — and, for fans of the series, that was it. Or not quite: Indridason has since penned three prequels. The second of which, Reykjavík Nights, is available in the United States this month.
The first prequel, Einvígið, focuses on the early life of Erlendur’s mentor, Marion Briem, a detective shown incapacitated by ill health and whose gender in never revealed in the series. Marion is perhaps Indridason’s finest creation. However, it is the Erlendur-focused second prequel, Reykjavík Nights, which has been translated first. This often occurs with Scandinavian crime fiction series; publishers start with an author’s strongest novel, which might come third or fourth in a series, and readers have developed a tolerance for reading books out of order. At least Indridason has been fortunate with the quality of his English translations. His early books were translated by the poet Bernard Scudder, until Scudder’s death in 2006 — his final translation, Silence of the Grave, went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger — and later books were translated by Anne Yates and now Victoria Cribb without a noticeable change in tone.
Indridason’s reasons for writing a prequel aren’t clear. Strange Shores appeared in Icelandic in 2010, and by 2011 he’d written Einvígið. So the books aren’t a response to his fans wanting more of the great detective. But by Strange Shores, Erlendur is in his sixties. He’s career weary, disillusioned with his family, and thinking of retirement. In many ways, there’s nowhere left for the character to go. Reykjavík Nights sees an ambitious 28-year-old Erlendur in the traffic police, hunting drunk drivers and breaking up fights, eager to take part in meaningful law enforcement.
Reykjavík Nights’s plot revolves around a vagrant, Hannibal, whom Erlendur had fished out of a flooded construction site in a part of Reykjavík’s expanding suburb a year prior to the start of the novel. In that year, Erlendur arrested Hannibal multiple times for drunken behavior and, empathizing with the dispossessed and traumatized, formed a tentative friendship with the tramp. In turn, Hannibal views Erlendur’s motives with suspicion:
“What happened to you?” the tramp asked suddenly.
“Nothing’s happened to me,” said Erlendur.
“Then what are you trying to make up for?”
When Hannibal turns up dead, the investigation is shelved — dismissed as a suicide or a drunken accident — but Erlendur’s relationship with the vagrant triggers his still developing sense of justice. When a young woman disappears after a night out, Erlendur, through his own out-of-hours investigations, discovers that she was the last person to see Hannibal alive. Keeping his interest away from the scrutiny of his superiors, he pulls together the threads of the case.
If the abstract landscape surrounding Reykjavík and the growing tensions within the modern city provide the backdrop of Indridason’s original series, it is the culture of 1970s Iceland that is mined well in this prequel. Erlendur’s colleagues, Gardar and Marteinn, are law students on summer vacation. Their attitude towards policing borders on the lackadaisical: eating pizza and discussing the latest American dramas to appear on TV. It’s an Iceland more isolated than the one depicted in the later Erlendur books; English writer Quentin Bates, whose books are set in the country, recalls moving there in 1979 when tomatoes and cucumbers were scarce in shops. The Americanization of Icelandic culture is new and strange, and Erlendur’s conflicted emotions towards this are clear. He asserts his Icelandic identity by eating local dishes rejected by his younger colleagues and despairs of witnesses who are more interested in watching episodes of the newly arrived Ironside.
Naturally, as Reykjavík Nights is a prequel written after the publication of a popular series, familiar readers (and Indridason, knowingly) will compare this past to the known future. Mores of the time contrast with modern attitudes: “As Erlendur was leaving work, he saw the wife-beater waiting for a taxi outside the police station. He had been released after questioning, free to go, as the incident was considered closed.” (The matter-of-fact language serves only to highlight Erlendur’s tacit disapproval.) Fans also want to see the gestation of themes present in the “mature” novels — like when Erlendur’s caution about committing to his girlfriend Halldóra foreshadows his later marital troubles and ambivalent relationship with his children. Toward the conclusion, we even get a welcome glimpse of Marion Briem, who is revealed as the pivotal figure in securing Erlendur a detective position.
Reykjavík Nights delivers a high-quality crime story with an integrated social message in the manner that we’ve come to expect from Indridason, and it sits well within the series. The mark of a good prequel, in some respects, is whether a reader coming to Indridason’s work through this book are likely to move on to the main series. It’s certainly possible, and there’s plenty here to tempt you to read more. But for most of us, the merit of Reykjavík Nights is the insight it gives us into the development of an already familiar detective. It is a welcome addition to the truly great Erlendur novels, Jar City and Silence of the Grave, which speak for themselves as to why Scandinavian crime novels have become so popular.